S.C. hospital fills empty wing with inmates to help avoid closure

The wing was outfitted with $3.3M in security equipment, including 60 cameras, fences, barred windows and locks


By Tracy Kimball
The Charlotte Observer

CHESTER COUNTY, S.C. — An empty wing of the Chester Medical Center will be filled with prison inmates.

Chester County Sheriff Max Dorsey said recently that he wants the community surrounding the hospital to know they are safe.

Patrick Cawley, CEO of the Medical University of South Carolina, talks about a new wing for inmates at the Chester Medical Center.
Patrick Cawley, CEO of the Medical University of South Carolina, talks about a new wing for inmates at the Chester Medical Center. (Photo/Tracy Kimball of The Charlotte Observer via TNS)

The Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), and the S.C. Dept. of Corrections unveiled the new wing earlier this month as hospital and corrections leaders, state representatives and Dorsey gathered for a tour. MUSC and the department have teamed up for the initiative.

Dorsey faced the possibility that people who live in nearby neighborhoods would be apprehensive about having inmates so near. He said their safety is his responsibility.

Law enforcement has a “comprehensive safety plan in place we’re working with the department of corrections, so we’re going to make sure that this place is safe on top of all of those things,” Dorsey said.

He said there is a response plan in place that involves emergency management, the sheriff’s office, the fire department and other public safety entities.

Patrick Cawley, chief executive officer for MUSC, said there has been “some nervousness” about the new wing, which has been hardened, or beefed up, with security measures.

“But when we explain that this facility has be hardened, It’s got all of the security features, and then when we also explain the benefit to the medical center, how we will be able to maintain the medical center, and be able to recruit more nurses and doctors, everybody begins to understand the pros and cons here and it’s been overwhelmingly positive,” he said.

Rural hospitals face threat of closing

The move to bring in inmates to the Chester, S.C., hospital aligns with the hospital’s need to fill beds as rural hospitals are on the brink of closing. Adding inmates will prevent that from happening, Cawley said.

“Communities like Chester are under great, great pressure to close their hospitals,” Cawley said. “It’s hard to maintain the hospital, but this will prevent that from happening or make it much, much, much less likely.”

Rural hospitals also have struggled over the years to attract medical staff, Cawley said. He said, adding the wing means there will be 60 new jobs.

South Carolina taxpayers foot the bill for inmates’ healthcare, including the need for specialists. Filling beds with inmates means those specialists also can serve other patients throughout the hospital, said S.C. Dept. of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling.

“Today is the culmination of a lot of discussions and a lot of idea generation in which we can help expand services at the Chester Medical Center, because they are a rural hospital, they are under constant pressure from just having the number of patients here because we don’t have enough patients,” Cawley said. “It’s hard to get enough doctors, it’s hard to get enough nurses.”

Steady flow of patients

The future of Chester Medical Center was uncertain before MUSC took it over in 2019. The hospital system, based in Charleston, bought three rural hospitals in the state, including Lancaster Medical Center, formerly known as Springs Memorial Hospital.

S.C. Rep. Mike Fanning said in the last 15 years, small rural communities have seen hospitals close time and again.

”Like ants being squished down by the big corporate giants that run medical and healthcare for the United States of America, they have overrun our healthcare, limited options, especially in rural communities and driven up prices,” Fanning said.

Working closely with the department of corrections will bring a “fairly steady” number of patients to the Chester Medical Center, Cawley said.

Dorsey said adding the wing is going to “enhance” the services already offered.

“Just because this wing and this service has been added, that’s not going to take away from what you’re offered here,” he said.

Stirling said he approached MUSC about using a wing of one of the hospitals when the system bought them. The prison wing at the Chester Medical Center will be the only consolidated hospital in the state, Stirling said.

Entering the secured area

Security cameras are scattered throughout the wing and outside.

Doors to the patient’s rooms, which will be occupied by only one patient, are secured with heavy-duty locks. Two security officers man the doors when they have to be opened. Medical staff pass through two sets of secured doors to get onto the wing, which also are manned with several security officers.

The surveillance room has images from 60 cameras fixed on areas throughout the wing. Fences cover floor-to-ceiling windows near the entrance.

And all of the rooms have barred windows.

The wing, which cost $3.3 million to fit in compliance with prison standards, also will help solve a statewide staffing shortage at prisons across the state, Stirling said.

Currently, inmates who need non-emergency care are transported to hospitals across the state and require two security officers over two shifts. The state typically has 36 hospitalized inmates, Stirling said, which means 144 security officers are needed every day statewide.

The new prison wing at the Chester Medical Center will require 20 security officers per day for 36 inmates.

“Everybody knows we have a lot of staffing issues at the Department of Corrections, and we struggle just like everybody else in this day and age to staff our facilities,” Stirling said. “With the consolidated wing at the Chester hospital, they will be able to put those officers back into the institutions, and that’s a game-changer.”

S.C. Rep. John King said he was born at the Chester hospital, along with most of his siblings, and said he has always worried about the medical center.

“Now you’re doing something even bigger, you are making sure our inmates across this state have healthcare, quality healthcare and so I’m excited about that,” he said.

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